He qualifies for New Zealand, Fiji, England and played most of his life in the backs. Yet a few years after making the transition to the back of the scrum, Hoskins Sotutu is being dubbed an All Blacks No 8 in waiting.
Witnessing the Blues’ continued resurgence during Super Rugby Aotearoa it is impossible to miss Sotutu’s blond-haired presence often leading the charge alongside captain Patrick Tuipulotu’s pink tips.
The 21-year-old, in his first full Super Rugby campaign after debuting late last season, has kept talented teammate Akira Ioane out of the No 8 role with a series of captivating performances, and now seems destined to crack the All Blacks squad later this year.
Blues forwards coach Tom Coventry is far from alone in being impressed by his No8 who returned from lockdown to deliver personal bests in the bench press, squat and aerobic testing.
New Fiji coach Vern Cotter is understood to be hopeful of luring Sotutu and if All Blacks coach Ian Foster doesn’t come calling, England may yet try their luck.
Whatever colour the jersey, test rugby beckons.
“Last year, we were critical of some of those things so he’s got the bit between his teeth. He understands he needed to change and he has,” Coventry says. “We’ve given him an opportunity early in the year to impress. We trusted him and he has taken that chance.
“He’s a catalyst for the change in our squad and the Blues fortunes.”
Sotutu has made the most tackles (27) — jointly with Blues flanker Dalton Papalii — and the most carries (22) by any forward in the New Zealand derby competition.
Although those stats signal vastly improved work rate and support play, it’s his silky skills that have tongues wagging.
Last week in Hamilton, as the Blues secured their first away win over the Chiefs since 2011, Sotutu scored from close range and then sealed victory in challenging conditions with a superb cutout pass off his left hand to put Mark Telea in.
It was no fluke. Earlier in the year, when the Blues defeated the Waratahs in Sydney, Sotutu sent Telea over with a deft grubber kick.
While harnessing the abrasive attributes required from No 8, Sotutu’s range of skills were honed at Sacred Heart College where he played in the backs until Year 12. His father, Waisake, who as vice-captain led Fiji to the 1999 World Cup, played on the wing for Auckland from 1991-97 and the Blues in 1996, naturally had a key role in nurturing his son’s talents.
— Tom Vinicombe (@TomVinicombe) March 26, 2020
“I started off on the wing because, you know, Fijians are wingers,” Sotutu tells the Weekend Herald this week. “I think I got a little bit slower and bigger so the coaches decided to chuck me in the forwards and see how I go and I’ve stayed there.
“My dad helped me with those sorts of skills growing up. We’d get out on the field and kick the ball to each other and if I did a bad kick he’d probably keep me there until I got it right.
“It’s funny for him now though — he’s a back and he’s trying to tell me what to do in the forwards. When I was younger it was all right but now it’s like ‘you’re a winger buddy’.
“I’ve always been able to pass off both hands all right so being in the backs probably helped.
“I like the forwards here because within our structure a lot of loose forwards get space to run with the ball. You’re in amongst the action all the time as well.”
Sotutu is born and raised in New Zealand but he knows a decision on his test eligibility looms.
“Whatever is next will come. I’ve got my dad’s Fijian heritage and that Kiwi side and my mum is English as well so I can qualify for an English passport.
“When the decision comes it will come easy but for the moment I’m just focusing on the Blues.
“I’m still learning. I’m taking this as my debut season and trying to find my feet and keep working on my craft.”
There is a danger in building prodigies up too soon but, in the case of the All Blacks, there is also a desperate need for a No 8, with Kieran Read’s test retirement leaving Ardie Savea the only established replacement.
Coventry chuckles as he recalls the Blues considering Sotutu to fill in the backs when injuries hit last year but there are no jokes predicting his rapid rise to the All Blacks.
“Having three choices is pretty cool but I like to think he’s an All Black in the making,” Coventry says, echoing the thoughts of many.
“In New Zealand, we’re pretty good at knowing when we’ve got talent available and ready to play. There is no set formula. We all see it.
“I’m not a big fan of making guys wait too long. You get them on the grass when they’re in good shape it doesn’t really matter about their age.
“Experience, well, you pick that up in Super Rugby.
“This competition is arguably as good as any you’re going to find in the world and not far behind test rugby so if he’s handling his own in this then I’d suggest he can handle himself at the next level as well.
“It’s not really a position we specialise in when kids are at school,” Coventry says. “The days of Buck Shelford and Zinzan Brooke being specialist No 8s, we probably haven’t really created one since those two were at the forefront of the game in New Zealand.”
It seems only a matter of time before Sotutu follows in those revered footsteps.
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